by Ryan C. Edwards
Patagonia spans the southern third of Argentina and Chile. The region has been shaped by large sheep estancias on its eastern plains, logging in the western and southern forests, and struggles for indigenous autonomy that date back to Spanish colonialism. At its southern extreme is the city of Ushuaia, Argentina. It is the world’s southernmost capital in the island province of Tierra del Fuego—a community constructed through inmate labor in the early twentieth-century.
Patagonia, however, is best known for a perceived absence of human activity. It is el fin del mundo (the end of the world). Many people want it to stay that way. Indeed, when the region receives media attention from around the world as it did the past year, it is oriented toward narratives of conservation and a desire to halt capitalist intrusion.
Already by 1996, French intellectual Jean Baudrillard cringed at Ushuaia’s “chaotic, incoherent cowboy-film modernity.” Ushuaia villas today share many aspects of clandestine housing in the Capital Federal. More prophetic, Baudrillard’s “cowboy-film” remark was recently brought to fruition through the filming of The Revenant (2016). The film is as much a period-piece as it is a geography-piece in its portrayal of the North American fur-trade in the early 1800s. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the protagonist, Hugh Glass, who is asked early in the story why he came to “the edge of the earth.” A man of few words, it seems that he is escaping (in)humanity and joins the Pawnee people, with whom he becomes (re)connected with the natural world. While seemingly spectacular, the tropes of this story—the rugged frontiersman and noble savage—have been thoroughly examined. This story of a fur-trapper in the early 1800s in the contemporary Dakotas seeks to capture a mood and ethos more than a particular place, and it is therefore the filming of this picture that is curious.
In this effort to film historical landscapes, climate change became the talking point, as the crew had to travel farther and farther north to find snowy regions in order to represent Glass’ formidable world. As the North American winter turned to spring, the crew turned south, far south—interchangeable it seemed, are the Arctic and Antarctic. The final filming was shot in southern Tierra del Fuego, just outside of Ushuaia. It was, for the purposes of the crew, timeless and wild enough, to capture the geographical past.
Interviews with Director Alejandro Iñárritu reveal that, rather than costume or dialog, it was time as place that was so hard to capture. In the promotional tour, geography and weather—modern man against primordial nature—were the storyline. Fans could even join in a treasure hunt for movie props through geocoaching, learning for themselves just how global the set had become. Some film reviewers noted that these multiple locations, and the hardships undertaken to capture them, made for one of the most beautiful films of all time.
Media outlets in Argentina were happy to cover the coming of DiCaprio and his private plane in August 2015 during the austral winter. Di Caprio is a well-known philanthropist and conservationist and has an eponymous foundation with multiple projects in Latin America. Patagonia has become a hub for such endeavors. This was the other unexpected news story to hit the region over the past year. The most well-known of these eco-philanthropists, Douglas Tompkins, passed away in December 2015 while kayaking on Lake General Carrera in Chilean Patagonia. Tompkins was best known as the co-founder of the clothing companies, Esprit and North Face. In his later years he left the clothing industry behind and began work with The Conservation Land Trust and the eponymous Tompkins Conservation. Tompkins’ wife Kristine McDivitt similarly stepped down as CEO of the clothing company Patagonia—North Face and Patagonia participate in a multi-billion-dollar outdoor apparel industry. Together they purchased over two million acres of land in Chilean as well as Argentine Patagonia. Nearly 500,000 acres of this land had been converted into five conservation parks in collaboration with the Chilean government. In 2014 The Atlantic argued that Tompkins was “saving paradise,” and at the time of his death, more of their holdings were in the process of being converted into seven additional parks.
However, this relationship between private philanthropy and environmental conservation was not always welcomed. Tompkins and other entrepreneurs from the global north had purchased large swaths of land throughout Patagonia, promising long term conservation, as well as eco-tourism and other ventures to make them economically sustainable. One investor, Warren Adams, has sought to float fresh water from Patagonia—one of the richest fresh water sources in the world—via oceanic currents to water-starved regions of Africa. Various local groups in Patagonia were dubious of such benevolence, highlighting long-standing indigenous claims to the land, as well as the irony of a foreigner creating national parks. Tompkins also made allies however, joining the anti-dam movement, Patagonia Sin Represas. His death was mourned by foreigners and locals alike.
Connecting southern Tierra del Fuego with the northern stretches of Patagonia where Tompkins was killed would be, at best, arbitrary. And yet, Tompkins’ death on that lake seem to have taken place in no place at all. Whether reported in The Guardian or New York Times, he was swallowed by the very land and waters that he sought to preserve: Patagonia. To call this regional place-name into question seems trivial. Like provinces or states, even cities, none of these proper nouns can capture the complexity that they strive to represent. But to speak their names is to tell a story, one that is political and charged, one that reaches from a storied Hollywood to a mythic end of the world. For better or worse, the dominant narrative collapses both history and geography. Conservation, after all, is not about preserving the present, but allowing for a perceived past to re-emerge.
Jean Baudrillard, “Tierra del Fuego – New York,” in Screened Out, trans. Chris Turner (1996; New York: Verso, 2002)
Ernesto Bohoslavsky, El Complot Patagónico: Nación, Conspiracionismo y Violencia en el Sur de Argentina y Chile (Siglos XIX y XX) (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2009)
Anne Chapman, European Encounters with the Yamana People of Cape Horn, Before and After Darwin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (New York: Summit Books, 1977)
Ryan Edwards, “From the Depths of Patagonia: The Ushuaia Penal Colony and ‘The Nature of the End of the World,’” Hispanic American Historical Review 94, no. 2 (May 2014)
Alberto Harambour-Ross, “Borderland Sovereignties: Postcolonial Colonialism and State-Making in Patagonia, Argentina and Chile, 1840s-1922” (PhD diss., Stony Brook University, 2012)
Eva-Lynn Jagoe, The End of the World as They Knew It: Writing Experiences of the Argentine South (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007)
Thomas M. Klubock, La Frontera: Forests and Ecological Conflict in Chile’s Frontier Territory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014)
Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Geografícas imaginarios: El relato de viaje y la construcción del espacio patagónico (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo Editora, 2003)
Susana Mabel López, Representaciones de la Patagonia: Colonos, científicos y políticos, 1870-1914 (La Plata: Ediciones al Margen, 2003)
Florencia Mallon, Courage Tastes of Blood: The Mapuche Community of Nicolas Ailio and the Chilean State, 1906-2001. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)
Michael Punke, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge (New York: Carrol and Graf, 2002)
Emily Wakild, “Purchasing Patagonia: The Contradictions of Conservation in Free Market Chile,” in Lost in the Long Transition: Struggles for Social Justice in Neoliberal Chile, ed. William L. Alexander (Lexington: Lanham, 2009)
Ryan C. Edwards received his PhD from Cornell University. In August 2016 he will join the history faculty at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Email: email@example.com